On Catastrophes and Other Felâket


(There's much more about McPhee on kitabet than there is here –– and more recently on earthquakes here –– ama neyse, birşey yazayım bari.)

I found a book of John McPhee on the discount pile at the Strand a few weeks back. The book has been sitting under a stack of old newspapers patiently mounding themselves into new ranges on my desk; orogenies the everyday, everyday orogenies. The book is In Suspect Terrain, and I think it follows McPhee's earlier work on plate tectonics, geology, and geologists, a series known as 'The Annals of the Former World,' or something close.

It's a lovely book -- I'm already 40 pages in -- filled with these passages that lift you from where you are to where the story is. Consider the quote he draws from Anita:
Later, she would say, "We were taught all wrong. We were taught that changes on the face of the earth come in a slow steady march. But that isn't what happens. The slow steady march of geologic time is punctuated with catastrophes. And what we see in the geologic record are the catastrophes. Look at a graded sandstone and see the bedding go from fine to coarse. That's a storm. That's one storm––when the water came up and laid the coarse material down over the fine. In the rock record, the tranquility of time is not well represented. Instead, you have the catastrophes. In the Southwest, they live from one catastrophe to another, from one flash flood to the next. The evolution of the world does not happen a grain at a time. It happens in the hundred-year storm, the hundred-year flood. Those things do it all. That earthquake made a catastrophist of me." (In Suspect Terrain, p. 43)


catastrophe, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is first used sometime in the late 16th century, and its first meaning comes from –– I think –– Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary: "The change or revolution which produces the conclusion or final event of a dramatic piece." While that change comes to acquire a sense of being a conclusion––often an unhappy one––over the next few decades, it is interesting that it is not for another century that catastrophe comes to acquire a more specifically negative sense. One wonders whether the English Civil War and the unhappy failure of that revolution has some bearing on the shift in meaning. Given the almost apocalyptic hopes of that revolution––imagine Milton here––it's not inconceivable that that the violence of the 17th century helps shape a meaning closer to the sense in which commonly use it now: "An event producing a subversion of the order or system of things."

It is not until the 19th century and Lyell's Principles of Geography that the term comes to be used is the sense that Anita uses it above:
A sudden and violent change in the physical order of things, such as a sudden upheaval, depression, or convulsion affecting the earth's surface, and the living beings upon it, by which some have supposed that the successive geological periods were suddenly brought to an end.
(My father once tried to explain to me the difference between catastrophist and uniformist approaches to geology, but it eludes me.)

Linguistically, the word is derived from kata (down) and strephein (to turn), and it is easy to see how the word first came to be applied to dramatic contexts; its semantic broadening, however, does not seem nearly so straightforward, and there's something pleasant in imagining Charles Lyell casting about for the proper word to describe his new science, in perhaps reading a history of the English Civil War and finding in its characterization of that catastrophe an apt figure for his own imagination of the shaping of the earth.


The two words we might use in Turkish for catastrophe are afet and felâket. The former, of course, could also be translated as disaster, and it's the latter that, I think, more closely approximates the sense of catastrophe as "An event producing a subversion of the order or system of things." The copy of Mehmet Kanar's dictionary of Ottoman Turkish I have claims that both words are borrowed from Arabic. The latter word presents a different challenge: The dictionary I have spells felaket with a kef instead of a qaf; and while one finds both roots in the Hans Wehr, it seems that the latter carries more of the appropriate meaning:
falaqa to split, cleave, rive, sunder, tear asunder (s.th); to cause (dawn) to break, dispel the shadows of night (of God) II to split, cleave, rive, sunder, tear asunder (s.th) V to be split, be cleft, be town apart; to split, cleave, crack, fissure, be or become cracked, be full of cracks or fissures (727)
Spelled with a kef, one finds:
falak celestial sphere; celestial body, star; circuit, orbit (of celestial bodies) 
maflûk ill-starred, unlucky, unfortunate (727)
In neither entry do we find the word that makes its way into Turkish, much less have a sense of how Turkish came to seize upon these two words as appropriate equivalents for catastrophe.

Elizabeth points out how earthquakes––perhaps one of the most striking examples of "a sudden and violent change in the physical order of things, such as a sudden upheaval, depression, or convulsion affecting the earth's surface, and the living beings upon it"––have often been framed in terms of the apocalyptic. An earthquake in 1509, she writes, was known as the kiyamet-i suğra, or "little apocalypse."


But digression on catastrophe aside, I want to return to these metaphors of stone and substance. Some while back, I chanced upon a lovely passage from J.B. Jackson's essay, "Stone and its substitutes."
Nevertheless, and perhaps without our realizing it, the distinction between buildings meant to last and buildings meant to be temporary is still part of our contemporary landscape, and if we do not as yet recognize it that is because we still think in terms of Renaissance permanence. But while seem to have drastically shortened the life span of the building as landmark, we have also shortened the life span of the temporary building -- dwelling, place of work, place of recreation. Often unnoticed by the architectural historian, who is almost exclusively concerned with public or institutional building, there has emerged over the last century… a vast number of structures designed and built to last for a period measured in a few years if not in months….

Aside from their ostensible connection through stone, the McPhee and the Jackson pieces are looking at very different things: The first, a kind of meditation on the multiple kinds of temporalities whose tangle constitutes our lives; the second, a response to the increasing ephemerality of the built environment, an attempt to think through how architectural history might respond to an accelerated modern world. But where I do think they match up is precisely on this topic of change––or more precisely, the ways in which we conceptualize change. Is the world in constant motion, its changes a series of incremental accidents? Or is the world prone to stasis, its changes the product of what Lyell, perhaps reading his history of the English Civil War, chose to call catastrophes?


Anita argues that, "The slow steady march of geologic time is punctuated with catastrophes... what we see in the geologic record are the catastrophes."And I started thinking about the work I've been continuing in Eyüp––about the changes in that neighborhood's built environment. I've just returned from a week in Ankara, a sort of archival smash-and-grab excursion. At one archive, I spent a few minutes trying to explain my project to the müdür. "It's, umm, about Eyüp, how it's changed and been changed."

"Oh," he said in a slightly nonplussed way, "Eyüp seems like one of those neighborhoods where the old fabric survives." His characterization echoes an evaluation I hear frequently when I'm spending time in the neighborhood: Eyüp is a neighborhood that's been able to protect its identity, in contrast, one supposes, the rest of the city. It's a place that changes, but has at least changed less than the city around it.

That's not a characterization I agree with––as I move towards the last few months of my fieldwork here, I'm becoming increasingly interested in the work that goes into maintaining the past, into restoring it, rebuilding it, and occasionally destroying it. I'm not sure whether Anita's sense of the catastrophic gives us any tools to think through the transformation of urban environments; I think the challenge is precisely to attend both to the catastrophic interventions in the built environment––Menderes in the 1950s, Dalan in the 1980s, the transformations enabled today under the auspices of the afet yasası––and to the kinds of uniform rhythms of everyday life which endure and wear the world down in their slow, illegible ways.


The final challenge, I suppose, is that of language: Of the words we choose to use to describe the world around us. These past few months have been a real pleasure for my Turkish––finally, I feel, words are flowing as fluently as I might wish. (Though in point of fact, it's a speech filled with many dips and eddies, to let our tongues get hung up upon the awkward pebbles of another's speech.) But it's also been interesting to find myself interacting with people who want to know, You've been here so long, what do you know, what have you learned, what are you going to write? And it's there that I––that we––confront the tangled languages we carry bundled with us, the histories they carry too.

Who knows, perhaps I'll take to calling my return to the States––only slightly tongue-in-cheek––a kind of catastrophe itself, in the true geological sense of things: "A sudden and violent change by which some have supposed that the successive geological periods were suddenly brought to an end."


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